Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review of The Griffin Mage by Rachel Neumeier

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In a smart marketing move, Orbit has rolled up this series into one omnibus edition. So, given that I don’t particularly warm to breeze-block sized fantasy books and only picked it up on the firm recommendation of Himself, was it worth hefting it off my To Read pile?

Griffins and mages, blood and kings. The Griffin Mage trilogy is a tale of fury and majesty – a tale of consequences in love, in war, and in death. Griffins are not mere animals: they are creatures born of a hot fierce magic and they bring their desert with them in the wind from their wings. But creatures of fire are the natural enemies of creatures of earth. The griffins strike fear and awe into the hearts of the ordinary people of Feierabiand, and inspire hatred amongst the powerful ice mages of Casmantium. And when hatred boils over – and kings get hungry for power – a war will be waged between earth and fire that will threaten to tear their whole world apart.

So… classic epic fantasy with big stakes, nasty monsters and plucky but under-rated heroines to save the day. Erm. No, not really. Neumeier is far more nuanced than that. Her griffins are not just scary beasts capable of razing human lands by covering their territory with blazing deserts – they are magnificently beautiful and reacting to a very real threat. The first book, Lord of the Changing Winds is all about the griffins and how they are being used in a wider political plot by an ambitious king. The focus of the story is very much about the way the griffins have been manoeuvred into fighting for their existence – and Kes, the small, quiet peasant girl who gets sucked right into the middle of the whole mess.

I very much liked how Neumeier handled this protagonist – she doesn’t suddenly become markedly different or a great deal more confident once she is shunted right into the middle of action. And there is a constant acknowledgement of the high cost – poignantly, not that Kes is fully aware of that – it is those who care for her that realise just what she will lose. After all, she’s barely a teenager and not educated or sophisticated – facts that Neumeier doesn’t gloss.

griinmageThe next book, Land of the Burning Sands has moved the story onward and this time the focus has shifted away from the griffins and more on the threat they are posing to the surrounding countries. And how the rulers and their mages are going to face up to such a determined attack on humankind. The main protagonist is a convicted murderer, Gereint, who is enslaved and bound by a geas to obey his owner – no matter what he is commanded to do… He flees into the desert created by the griffins in an attempt to escape from the cruel, depraved lord who owns him – and his subsequent adventures have him caught up in the desperate efforts to stop the griffins overrunning humanity and covering the earth with their deserts. It is fascinating to view Kes, the griffins’ fire mage, through the lens of those trying to oppose her. And it is a joy to read a series where the threat isn’t posed by some pantomime villain glorying in his wickedness, but by an angry powerful group who are still nursing a sense of grievance for past wrongs inflicted upon them.

The third book, Law of the Broken Earth, again shifts the time forward with a different set of protagonists. While reading the books in order gives the reader the full impact of the author’s intentions regarding the way each book builds on the previous one, I do get the sense that if you picked up one of these and read it as a standalone, it would still work. While you would only be getting a slice of the world, there is no sense that you would spend half the book floundering to catch up with what had gone before – a major consideration.

Mienthe, an heiress who has lived a sheltered life tucked away in the Delta Land, finds herself pitchforked into the middle of a major crisis when a spy escaping from a neighbouring country seeks refuge in their manor house. While those pursuing him don’t give up, enraged at what he has stolen… While Mienthe’s older, capable cousin and the King are engrossed at the other end of the country with the growing crisis around the griffins, she finds herself struggling to cope with attacks, both magical and actual as the Delta is invaded.

The griffins’ activities run like a spine throughout the trilogy and at times we revisit Kes, the first protagonist in the series. But by this time, she is completely altered such that the humans who try to interact with her rarely succeed. There is a sense of sadness at what has happened to her, despite her clear enjoyment of the Land of Fire, which I appreciated. It is always refreshing to encounter a magical system where the consequences are long-lasting and not necessarily good.

So, does the ending of the final book in this engaging trilogy satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends and give us an adequate conclusion for the considerable amount of time the reader has invested in this brick of a book? Absolutely. I particularly appreciated the explanation for the imbalance between the forces of Earth and Fire that caused the initial enmity between the griffins and humanity. As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book – and will be looking out for more of Neumeier’s work. A writer capable of such intelligently, layered storytelling is worth reading.
9/10

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Review of Crash by Guy Haley

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Guy Haley is always worth reading – and when I came across his latest book, it was a must-read.

Dariusz is an engineer whose career ended years ago: now, a man he’s never met sits in a bar that doesn’t exist and offers him a fresh start… at a price. Cassandra – ‘Sand’ to her friends – is a space pilot, who itches to get her hands on the controls and actually fly a ship, rather than watch computers do it for her. The ‘Pointers’ – the elite 0.01% who control virtually all wealth – have seen the limitations of a plundered Earth and set their eyes on the stars. And now Dariusz and Sand, and a half-million ambitious men and women just like them, are sent out to extend the Pointers’ and the Market’s influence across the galaxy – but events don’t go according to plan…

crashI’ve omitted the final paragraph of the back-cover blurb as it contains far too many spoilers. But you have the scenario of a generation-ship and pioneer colony tale – classic science fiction fare. Does Haley provide a sufficiently novel spin on this familiar storyline?  Oh, for sure. Haley’s tale of ordinary men and women trying to prevail while snared in a cat’s-cradle of social inequality, hubris and deep-laid plots makes for an engrossing read. His smooth style is effective at depicting his protagonists with sufficient depth and complexity that we root for them despite the fact that he isn’t afraid to show their flaws. Or kill a few main characters off along the way…

The story continues gathering pace throughout the book, so there are several significant time-jumps near the end as the action whisks along at a fair clip. If Haley wasn’t such an accomplished writer, I might have had more of a problem with his accelerating narrative pace and felt somewhat cheated by being scurried along. But I didn’t, because he is also extremely good at depicting his landscapes. No matter if we were hammering through the story at almost sprint speed, there wasn’t any time that I didn’t have a very clear idea exactly how the protagonists were feeling about the whole business – or where they were and what it looked, felt and smelt like.

If you aren’t a SFF fan, perhaps you don’t realise just what a huge deal this is. It’s tricky enough presenting a convincing backdrop of a familiar cityscape as background to a whodunit without putting a brake on the murder mystery. But when you are establishing a fantastic landscape that no one other than the writer can see in his mind’s eye, this suddenly becomes a major issue. Hence, it isn’t uncommon for two to three pages of info-dumps to regularly occur in SFF books, which we either skim or revel in, depending on our preference. I like to be able to clearly visualise the world and how the characters interact with it in, without pages of turgid detail. And Haley manages to deliver this in cinematic, pin-sharp detail, making it look a whole lot easier than it actually is.

There is clearly a sequel to this adventure, as far too many dangling plot points are waving in the wind for this to be a stand-alone story. And I shall be on the lookout for it when it hits the shelves – meanwhile Haley’s lonely colony will lodge in my head due to his strong, skilful depiction of their plight.
8/10

The Adventures of Mike and SJ – Episode 11

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This thread started on a forum Mike and I shared, when we started playing off each other about this alternative/fantasy persona we each gave ourselves. Since then, we’ve started writing a novel together and Mike has had a number of books published as Michael D. Griffiths (The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part I, The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part II, Eternal Aftermath) while I’ve been busy rewriting several books and establishing my Creative Writing classes at Northbrook College. But though he writes horror and I write sci fi, when we get together, we write… differently! So I thought I’d put a slice of our combined madness on my blog…

Maybe this will work out if I can Mike to calm down. Jack’s alright. Well – not really. He’s sitting in the corner downing a gallon of beer, along with his sorrow that he couldn’t continue his big old punch-up. Not with that huge guy still crying cos Jack punched him in the jaw. They’re actors, you see.

blimpWe’ve managed to gatecrash a BBC production shoot of the new Dr Who series in this London pub, where they’ve just been setting up a big publicity stunt for the new Christmas special. Got this big blimp looking like an alien ship floating in the sky, with people on harnesses being winched up. Jack went into hero overdrive – grabbed hold of one girl’s legs, while Dahtoe started attacking the blimp. We did manage to stop the mad bird before he brought it down, which was a huge relief for everyone living under it. I think they’re bonkers – whatever happened to CGI? Putting stuff like that up in the sky, is just asking for trouble when the likes of Dahtoe is loose up there…

The producer came and introduced himself – and I braced myself, waiting for the rant about wrecking his set and causing all this trouble. But no. For a change, he was really nice and wants us along as part of the storyline, apparently. Thinks that we look ‘the real thing’ – whatever that is. Trouble is, Mike’s just puddled down into a glassy-eyed, foot shuffling fool, who keeps mumbling ‘Billy Piper’ under his breath and turning unbecoming shades of beet that clash with the alternating stripes in his hair.

I tried to tell him that Billy Piper stopped being Dr Who’s plucky assistant a few series ago – but I don’t think it went in. I’ve a nasty feeling that it isn’t Mike who’s seriously stuck on Ms Piper – I reckon it’s Little Wax Head Boy. And trying to get the LWHB to change his mind is about as easy as ten pin bowling with a boulder.

They’ve given us a script and we’ve got two hours to learn the words. If I can’t get Mike to snap out of it, we’ll never manage. Ah – I’ve an idea. Granted, it’s a bit extreme. But it’s worth a go – after all desperate times call for desperate measures. If nothing else, we could do with the cash – they’re offering us £400 a day. Each…

If I could just get Dahtoe to land on Mike’s shoulder and nibble at his ear. A bit. The pain might bring him round. I don’t like doing it – but it’s called tough love…

Dahtoe! Here, boy! Look – pork scratchings… Yeah – thought that would get your attention. And another piece – wow, it’s cool watching you snatch it out of the sky, like that… But what about this, then? A nice tasty piece – only I’ve hidden it in Mike’s ear… C’mon, Dahtoe…

***

What huh, YOW!

Get off me you, silly bird. Some familar you are. Yeah, you better keep moooovvvving away.

What’s going on now? What is Jack all grumpy about? Huh – what? The soundman’s evil and SJ won’t let you kick his butt because we soundamnare broke?

What – we are going to be on the BBC? Well…I did a little acting myself. I’m sure you saw that nurse training video that came out in 2004. You see I played a mean foreman and-

*Whispering* Oh shoot, I didn’t know they were filming just then. No, Jack I don’t think the soundman did that on purpose. Yes, I think we should leave, but SJ won’t let us. She keeps going on and on about her power bills and all the petrol she has bought. Besides… I have to admit a little beer money won’t hurt.

Um… do I want Billy Piper’s autograph? Oh yeah… that’d be totally cool! Have you met her – she looks so hot… Wait – aren’t you the soundman?

Jack, NO STOP!

EBOOK – Review of A Cold Day for Murder – Book 1 of the Kate Shuguk series by Dana Stabenow

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My husband came across this author about six months ago and has steadily worked his way through her complete output, which is considerable – her twentieth book in this series, Bad Blood, was released in February. I’ve a backlog of books to complete but when I was recently away for a few days, I downloaded A Cold Day For Murder.

colddaySomewhere in the hinterlands of Alaska, among the millions of sprawling acres that comprise “The Park,” a young National Park Ranger has gone missing. When the detective sent after him also vanishes, the Anchorage DA’s department must turn to their reluctant former investigator, Kate Shugak. Shugak knows The Park because she’s of The Park, an Aleut who left her home village of Niniltna to pursue education, a career, and the righting of wrongs. Kate’s search for the missing men will take her from self-imposed exile back to a life she’d left behind, and face-to-face with people and problems she’d hoped never to confront again.

As you may have gathered from the blurb, there is a lot here that sounds very familiar – a gutsy heroine with a troubled past who finds herself compelled to take on a case. What makes this whodunit offering stand out from the crowd is the setting. Alaska. And while Stabenow writes a reasonably effective protagonist and an entertaining plot – the engine that drives this story is the setting. Immediately we are presented with a landscape as nearly alien as some of the science fiction and fantasy settings I’m so fond of – in a setting such as this, no one can forget their surroundings. It drives the way everyone behaves and goes about their daily lives. It creates unique problems and pleasures that the rest of us cannot access.

Stabenow’s depiction of daily Alaskan life is pin sharp and rings with authenticity as she was brought up in that part of the world. Kate Shuguk, the protagonist, is a member of the local ethnic tribe, who went away and has returned and through her viewpoint, Stabenow not only gives us an entertaining adventure set in one of the wilder parts of the world, she also gives us a brief insight into the options open to a small underclass of people, whose history and geography have immediately ringfenced their opportunities. Popular genre fiction doesn’t often manage to give us these insights. While Stabenow’s first priority is clearly to provide a well-crafted story, as she mentioned in a recent Radio 4 interview, people’s impressions are that Alaska is a pristine wilderness where inhabitants can somehow commune with Nature. The reality is a whole lot more complicated and messy, as Stabenow suggests.

So, given that the backdrop and environment are the stars in this story and series – does Stabenow manage to craft a suitably complex supporting cast and plot? Yes, she does. Her writing style is straightforward and she uses limited omniscience, rather than fully character-led POV. If she’d set the stories in Chicago or New York, I don’t think she would have got away with it, but given the backdrop and her ability to provide a vivid description without holding up the action, she manages to pull it off. I’m certainly up for diving into the next book in this series.
8/10

Review of Wolf’s Brother – Book 2 of The Saga of the Reindeer People by Megan Lindholm

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This is the second half of the story Lindholm started with The Reindeer People and picks up exactly where the first book finished, back sometime during the Bronze Age, in the wilds of Northern America/Europe/Russia.

wolf's brotherEvery day, Kerlew’s magic grows, reaching out to his guide, the Wolf. But the magic also calls to Carp, the evil old shaman, who is pursuing Kerlew and his mother, Tillu, across the frozen waste. Meanwhile, someone – or something – is committing terrible atrocities in the village that Tillu now calls home. With fear and suspicion at fever pitch, a strange old man appears, with an offer of help…

Lindholm manages to perfectly capture the sense of fear and claustrophobia that overtakes her protagonists after an unsolved murder. And two very ambitious, ruthless individuals appear to be able to operate without any opposition within the small community, as misfortunes continue to pile up. This is essentially a murder/mystery and the fantastic elements are confined to the shamanistic magic practised by Carp and Kerlew. It works really well and I was so caught up in the characters and their problems, I didn’t miss the supernatural factor. The world is so distant from our own, where Life is precarious and the difference between survival and death often simply down to misfortune, there was a constant sense of tension.

Tillu’s efforts to try and protect Kerlew from Carp’s malign influence held me – as did Heckram’s attempt to keep his place within the small community after having made some powerful enemies… This isn’t a long read, which is just as well because once I picked up the book I found it very difficult to put down. Lindholm’s pacing, evocation of the journey when the tribe have to follow the wild reindeer herds to their summer camp and her depiction of the handful of vividly drawn characters is a joy.

She brings this tale to a triumphant and climactic end – and this little gem presages the author’s successful career as one of the foremost Fantasy writers of her generation as Robin Hobb. Both The Reindeer People and Wolf’s Brother are available in print and as an ebook. If you are already a Robin Hobb fan and want an enjoyable, compelling read then give yourself a treat. You won’t be sorry…
9/10

Summer sunset over Littlehampton Beach

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Now that the autumn is well and truly upon us – I thought I’d just recall one of a series of wonderful sunsets we experienced during this summer, which was the best we’ve had since 2006. I wandered along the shingle, snapping the lovely pink-tinged seascape and clouds and was delighted that a number of them came out reasonably well…

Littlehampton beach @sunset Sunset @ L'ton beach4 Pink clouds @ L'ton beach5 Pink clouds @ L'ton beach7 Pink clouds on L'ton beach1 Sunset on L'ton beach6 Sunset @ L'ton beach7

Review of EBOOK Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

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Ben came to talk to West Sussex Writers last year about tweeting and online marketing, as his guidebook has become an Amazon non-fiction best-seller. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap with an endearingly honest streak. I found his book online and loaded up on my Kindle as a summer read, to use it as a reward when I had written at least half of next term’s course notes…

are we nearly there yetIf you think writing a guidebook is easy, think again… A family’s 8,000 miles round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40, so when Ben and Dinah saw the advert looking for a husband and wife team with young kids to write a guidebook about family travel around Britain, they jumped at the chance. With naïve visions of staring moodily across Coniston Water and savouring Cornish pasties, they embark on a mad-cap five-month trip with daughter Phoebe, four, and son Charlie, two, embracing the freedom of the open road with a spirit of discovery and an industrial supply of baby wipes.

I had expected a catalogue of mini-disasters, child-centred chaos and a certain amount of family tension – I’m a granny who spends a fair amount of my ‘free’ time looking after small grandchildren, so am only too aware of what an exhausting, messy job it can be. What I hadn’t expected, was the stark honesty with which Hatch portrays family life. He gave us an intimate history of his relationship with his wife and how they weathered a previous break-up, as well as an unvarnished account of the interplay between them, including the fights.

We also got the expected small children moments, though Hatch manages to keep parental sentimentality well and truly in check. The children came across as bright and articulate – and often more than a tad hyper, probably on account of all those chocolate buttons they were being fed to persuade them to be good…

While I was aware that Ben’s father, Sir David Hatch, had been suddenly diagnosed with cancer just before they set out on their five month adventure, I hadn’t expected the very moving recollections of Ben’s boyhood and his relationship with his father, who died while they were still on the road. It was poignant and rich as Ben’s sharp, honest prose sliced to the heart of how he felt, also wrestling with the prospect of his daughter disappearing off to school once the trip ended. So what this book is all about, is family life. About a couple of bright, intelligent people haunted by the sense that they were not fulfilling the promise of their youth, but instead had somehow become other people. In the middle of looking at museums, grading hotels for child-friendliness and coping with tantrums while always being in public – I got the sense that Ben and Diane discovered a lot more about families than how many chocolate buttons it takes to make a four-year-old sick.

If you are remotely interested in family life, get hold of a copy of this book. It packs far more a punch than the light-hearted cover conveys.
9/10

Review of Above the Snowline by Steph Swainston – Book 4 of The Fourlands series

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Swainston’s book The Modern World blew me away. The sheer quality and originality of her world-building, characterisation and story arc was impressive and memorable. I loved Jant, the immortal, drug-taking Messenger and the New Weird mash-up of aspects of modern life in a medieval setting. So, when I came across this offering, I scooped it off the shelf with joy in my heart. But would it fulfil my expectations?

Awian exiles are building a settlement in the Darkling mountains, where the Rhydanne hunt. Their clash of interests soon leads to bloodshed in the snows and Shira Dellin, a Rhydanne huntress, appeals to the immortal Circle for justice. The Emperor sends Jant, half-Rhydanne, half Awain, and all-confidence to mediate…

Above the Snowline is a prequel to the previous three books, and here we see a far younger, more callow Jant sent out on his first above the snowlinevital mission. A Jant before the drug-taking and his marriage – and before he has faced up to his difficult heritage. The other major difference is that though the gritted struggle with the Insects is occasionally mentioned, it isn’t at the forefront of the story. The engine that drives this narrative is the collision of cultures between the solitary Rhydanne hunters that occupy an apparently empty territory – and the sudden influx of Raven and his followers after their attempt to dislodge the Awain King – Raven’s brother – fails. As they struggle to survive on the forested uplands, their trapping, tree-felling and building frightens away the native wildlife – and the Rhydanne hunting pairs find themselves facing starvation.

While we get a sense of Jant, his voice is far more muted in this book, as the exploration of the worsening situation is told through multiple first person viewpoints – so we learn of Dellin’s essential wildness, courage and conviction, along with Raven’s bitter sense of injustice that he is cheated of the throne by being the brother born a few moments later than his twin.

Swainston’s strong storytelling gives us insights into all the major protagonists – so as the situation tips into spiralling violence, we find ourselves sympathising with both the Rhydanne and Raven, who has been banished to the bleak mountains for the rest of his life. Unlike so much Fantasy, Swainston won’t allow us the easy option of thoroughly hating the baaad villain, as the heroine, Dellin, commits a terrible crime. While we learn that Raven is a cultured, highly intelligent man, who has a vision for the Awain nation – and would probably make a better king than his less thoughtful brother. His work ethic and concern for the welfare of his followers is certainly admirable, if disastrous for the ecology of the area.

As ever with Swainston, the story moves along at a fair clip without being unduly slowed by her superb descriptions. The bleak landscape is wonderfully portrayed and Raven’s fort is depicted with cinematic precision – as is the local hostelry and trading post ‘The Frozen Hound’ and its remarkable host Ouzel, one of my favourite characters.

The ending is suitably dramatic and satisfactorily brings the plot to a conclusion, which is important, given that this slice of the Fourlands is not going to feature again. As you may have gathered, I enjoyed this book every bit as much as Swainston’s earlier offering. Though this is despite another truly dreary cover that doesn’t begin to reflect the sparkling freshness of Swainston’s writing – or the very unfriendly font that had my poor middle-aged eyes aching. Those caveats aside, I recommend that you track down Swainston’s wonderful series – she really is in a class of her own.
10/10

Review of Advent by James Treadwell – Book 1 of The Advent trilogy

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Ever a sucker for a cool, creepy cover, this book pleaded with me to be plucked from the bookshop shelving and I caved in – sad addict that I am. Then in guilt-ridden disgust with myself (I need another book in the house like I need a flea circus…) I plonked it on the teetering pile by my bedside, where it has resided for most of the year.  Until a few days ago, when the bright sunshine caught its cover. I opened it, idly started reading the first few lines – and was snared…

adventFor centuries it has been locked away. Locked away. Lost beneath the sea. Warded from earth, air, water, fire, scrying thought and sigh. Now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train alone, to Cornwall. Where he steps into a different world…

That’s the blurb – apart from the last sentence, which is my own invention as the original contains a spoiler. I never read back cover blurbs until I’ve finished the book, as they are generally far too prone to release information the author crafted to be revealed to the reader in the context of the story arc, not in a couple of snappy sentences on the cover. And this one is no exception.

I’ve seen this book compared favourably to Susan Cooper, and while such hyped comparisons are often absurd, this time, I was reminded of Cooper’s threat-ridden landscape and sense of tension. Treadwell is a superb writer – the description of the ancient house, Pendurra, is outstanding. The other writer Treadwell reminds me of is Richard Adams – and no, I’m not discussing Watership Down – I’m thinking of his disturbing book The Girl on a Swing. The way Treadwell builds the character of Gavin, beset by visions that no one else will admit are anything other than his wayward attempt to get attention, the richness and quality of the writing and the feeling of shock and dislocation as events slide away into something a whole lot darker, is reminiscent of Adams’ gothic masterpiece. Although, I hasten to add that Advent doesn’t deal with the same subject matter as The Girl on a Swing, as it is intended for a YA market.

It is a hefty read and at no time does Treadwell throw his young readers any sort of ‘you’re only teenagers, so I’ve made it easier for you’ lifebelt, I’m delighted to report. This non-teenager was engrossed with the quality of the storytelling. In addition to Gavin, there are a cast of vivid characters – the most prominent being the power-hungry mage with more than a nod to Doctor Faustus.

While the tension is there from the first page, it takes a while for the action to fully kick off – but when it does, there is plenty of it. Treadwell gives his readers a ringside seat as Gavin attempts to make sense of the world as it lurches into something different, with the resulting mythological creatures including a birdman, an undine/mermaid and a hellhound. There is a sense of magic, so long repressed and hidden away, now bursting out onto a world unused and defenceless against this new force. And I’m fascinated to see where Treadwell takes this story in the next book, Anarchy, which also has a wonderful cover. I’ll be tracking it down, very soon. In the meantime, if you enjoy excellent fantasy without so much as a whiff of vampires, then go hunting for Advent. It’s one of the best fantasy books – YA or otherwise – I’ve read this year.
10/10

Review of EBOOK The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

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I’d heard quite enough about J.K. Rowling’s latest foray into adult fiction – so downloaded the Kindle version to make up my own mind. Do I feel particularly outraged at her attempt to write under another name? Nope – after reading only a fraction of the snidely hostile reviews she accrued for The Casual Vacancy, it seemed an intelligent move to try and avoid the same bru-ha if she could. And authors writing under different pen-names for different genres is hardly ground-breaking stuff – so the big fuss it caused was just so much synthetic puff designed to fill column inches, it seemed to me.

cuckooCormoron Strike, ex-soldier with half a leg missing, is on the ropes. Homeless and heartbroken as his destructive relationship with his fiancée finally comes to an end, he also faces financial ruin. Until the brother of a dead childhood friend walks into the office, desperate for him to look into the death of Lula Landry, his step-sister and celebrity model. The police are satisfied that her fall from a balcony window in Mayfair was suicide, but John Bristow believes otherwise. He pays Strike double his normal fee to uncover the truth, which is enough for him to keep the latest temporary secretary, Robin, who seems to be working out really well.

Rowling’s strength is making us care about her characters, while spinning a page-turning story and these talents are aptly demonstrated in this entertaining, enjoyable whodunit. I rapidly bonded with Strike – whose attention to his personal hygiene in difficult circumstances I found very endearing. As he painstakingly tracks through Lula’s life, building up a picture of a beautiful super-model and the price of fame – as well as the trappings. The pressure of paparazzi hounding her every move and hacking into her phone leaves her depressed and isolated in a smart flat that she hates. As with the best crime thrillers, I found I increasingly cared about the victim as Strike unearths more details about her character and life, so that her death feels like a genuine tragedy by the end. Which is exactly what a reader should be feeling in this genre – and so often doesn’t.

I particularly relished the cast of characters, along with their unfolding backstories. There are a variety of interesting people in the frame for Lula’s murder – and I had no problem that Strike got there before me. If Rowling had been writing in limited first person viewpoint, I would have been quibbling about it, but she didn’t. Did I see the denouement coming? Although several reviewers have claimed that they guessed early on exactly who had done it, I didn’t. Not that I was bothering to try too much, as I was fully engrossed in the story. I happen to think that endings are something that Rowling does particularly well – and this time is no exception. There is a real sense of poignancy at Lula’s death that could have been avoided, if only things had been slightly different. Strike’s own character progresses well throughout the story, with a couple of dangling plot-points to keep us wondering and eager to read the next book in the series.

Any niggles? The prologue seemed a tad clunky, but once Strike appeared the pace picked up and Rowling  quickly settled into the story. I do wonder whether we actually need that awkward piece on the front of the narrative. The other issue I have is that the scene setting is patchy. In places it sings off the page. I could smell the scruffy office Strike inhabits and the glittering, ostentatious Mayfair flat was pin-sharp. However, the best writers in this genre also depict London with a similar cinematic clarity, and this is missing in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Though there is far too much to enjoy about this book to let such relatively minor weaknesses bother me – and they are noticeable is because the overall crafting of the book is so solid. I will definitely be buying the next one, whether Rowling chooses to continue using Robert Galbraith as her pen-name, or not.
8/10